Among faithful, debates rages over key to kingdom of heaven

Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 5:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:42 a.m.

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egular readers of the Voices column may have noted that not all the Christian contributors are singing from the same hymnal. Some of the differences hinge on what I consider a red herring of Christian tradition — namely, the faith vs. works argument that either we are judged by our deeds, or that our salvation comes only through faith in Jesus, since human works are so unworthy they’re beneath God’s contempt.

Let’s review that contention. It comes from the recognition that we are flawed creatures who cannot gain salvation on our own, no matter how kind or generous or loving we intend to be. It was for this reason that Jesus died on the cross, for in that death he took the sins of humanity on his shoulders.

Christians believe that God allowed his son to die for our sins, and that Jesus’ Resurrection predicates ours, as well. Exclusionary Christians believe that only those who proclaim their faith in Jesus’ sacrifice gain salvation. Fail to declare yourself a Christian, and you’re doomed. On top of that, some denominations and sects maintain that unless you are a member in good standing of their particular Christian club, God will reject you. To such legalists, Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

More inclusive Christians would argue that people of non-Christian faiths also are covered by Jesus’ sacrifice, whether they understand and acknowledge it or not. For them, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, God will show mercy according to their works; that is, how they lived their lives. And at the extreme end of the Christian spectrum, Universalists believe God’s love is so great that all people will be brought to salvation, no matter what the content of their faith or works.

Thus, the faith vs. works debate drags on. Paul writes that God told Moses, “‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:14-16). So, works don’t work.

Meanwhile James, Jesus’ brother, writes, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” James 2:26). And Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom, but only he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7: 21). Works are on again, it seems. So why do I call this fundamental Christian debate a “red herring?”

Well, let’s look at some other Christian fundamentals. It’s generally accepted that faith is a gift from God — you either get it or you don’t. Jesus himself said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). If Christian faith is the only path to heaven, and God doesn’t give it to you, then you are plain out of luck. And that would include the majority of the world’s population! For many Christians, such wholesale condemnation just doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, take the Muslim belief that our works are piled on a scale, with good deeds on one side and the bad on the other. The tip of the scale decides our fate.

Most folks of all religious persuasions would fare badly under the rule of pure justice. This is where Jesus’ sacrifice becomes mandatory to our salvation.

So let’s consider a larger, albeit Christian-based, context for God’s love. Let’s say Jesus came to save the whole world, and took all sins of all peoples on his shoulders.

And let’s say that Jesus’ words such as “I am the door” (John 10:9), and “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), mean not that Christians alone get saved, but that Jesus is the gate through which everyone must pass at the end of our days. Now, on what basis will he judge us? On whether we were fated to be a Christian during our lives?

Or will it be on the basis of how we live our lives, and whether our works demonstrate what Jesus called the greatest commandments: to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39)? Since faith is not a freewill choice for many, then works become the only God-inspired choice available to peoples of all religions — and the only quantifiable measure of our personal affinity to God’s command that we should love one another.

It is also the basis upon which Jesus said we would be judged. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus describes those who will be judged worthy to enter the kingdom: They are those who in their lives fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited in the stranger, clothed the needy, tended the sick, visited the prisoners (Matthew 25: 31-46). In other words, those who did good works will be worthy. That, Jesus says, is the basis on which he will judge us.

Does this mean we are saved by works? Not necessarily. For clarification, we can turn to this famous passage from Paul: “If I give all I possess to the poor, and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians, 13:3).

So then, are we saved by faith? Not necessarily. Paul writes: “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians, 13:2). And being nothing to God is not where we want to be.

In fact, Paul reconciles the faith vs. works, dog-chasing-its-tail argument in the wisdom of his I Corinthians, Chapter 13. The efficacy of both faith and works depends on the love God desires of us, elicits from us, commands of us. The death and resurrection of Jesus was a world-changing event that brought with it the availability of God’s grace through the presence of the Holy Spirit. This love poured into every corner of the world, so that every particle of the creation was infused with its force and availability.

God is love, and all people have the ability to resonate to that — by loving God and loving one another. And it’s our resonance to God’s great commandments to love, I believe, by which we will be measured.

Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at leewitting@midmaine.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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